Uptown Funk, then Jazz and the Blues: my last few steps through New Orleans

In a lot of ways, New Orleans was a city that didn’t really feel like a city. At least, not when you were staying in the French Quarter. Well… it didn’t feel like all other other American cities – and I say that now with reference to all the other cities I visited after New Orleans, given that at the time the only reference points I really had were New York, DC, and Baltimore. Yes, it was partly to do with the architecture and the fact that the city colonised by the French and so it had a very different aesthetic about it, but there were other little things. Vincenzo had mentioned the CBD of New Orleans a couple of times, pointing off in a vague direction towards the west whenever he did so. It struck me as a little bit odd that I hadn’t been over that way yet, given that in a lot of places – or in my hometown of Sydney, at least – the CBD was very much a happening place that was very close the life of the party, so to speak. Yet my time in New Orleans hadn’t taken me that way at all. I’d wandered around the French Quarter, discovering hole-in-the-wall bars, quirky shops, and even the Louis Armstrong Park just a few blocks away from Vincenzo’s home, but I found it interesting that what would probably be considered a focal point or highlight of many other cities was simply considered a business and financial district with not that much tourist appeal at all.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

The man himself.

The man himself.

And his band.

And his brass band – thought I don’t know that the statutes were made from.

You know jazz is a part of the city’s culture when it starts sponsoring parks.

However, I did end up going to the New Orleans CBD during my time in the city. When he wasn’t busy working, Vincenzo and I spent a lot of time together. Sometimes it would just be hanging around his house, and him surprising me by actually knowing the songs I was strumming on my ukulele simply from listening to the chords – I learnt he was a good singer when he burst into the room to join me for our own acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s Creep. Other times we would take short trips to some of his favourite cafés around the French Quarter or the Bywater and have a lazy brunch or a coffee, and afterwards we’d browse through second-hand stores and op-shops and marvel at some of their whackier wares and hidden treasures. And Vincenzo would pretend to not know me as I knew all the words and sang along to Whatever You Like by T.I. as it was playing over the store’s radio. Which only prompted me to sing louder. And add dance moves. He acted like he was embarrassed, but I was convinced he found it secretly endearing. At any rate, he didn’t kick me out of his house, so I can’t have been that bad.

One afternoon Vincenzo had to go visit his local bank, which happened to be located in the CBD. He asked me to join him, and that’s how I learnt that he owned a moped, or scooter. I shouldn’t have been surprised – I mean, his background was Italian – and so I made up for the lack of Lizzie McGuire movie moments I’d had in Rome with my arms wrapped around Vincenzo’s waist as we’d whizzed through the French Quarter and on to the city. We visited his bank, stopped to get some groceries on the way home and a rented couple of DVD’s, and spent the night snuggled up in Vincenzo’s bed watching horror movies. Later in the week – I can’t remember when, maybe when I was busy doing a load of hand washed laundry in his bathtub, or possibly after I’d just taken Princess for a walk, but Vincenzo looked at me and said, “Isn’t this nice? Living together like this? It’s like, renting a husband or something. Getting to spend time together without the necessary commitment… Think I could renew you for another week?”
I just laughed and gave him a cheeky smile, though I had to admit it was kind of crazy, the bond the two of us had formed over such a short time together. If I’d had more weeks to spare, I definitely wouldn’t have minded spending them there with him.

***

A lot of the time it felt as though Vincenzo felt he had a duty, not just as a temporary husband but as my host in New Orleans, to show me more parts of the city. When he had a full afternoon off he was adamant that he showed me some other areas so that when I left town, I could say that I’d seen more than such the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. In those kinds of situations I can actually be pretty indecisive, so I kind of loved that he could take charge and just tell me where we were going and what we were going to do. So on one sunny November afternoon we jumped on the scooter and he drove me right across the city, through the CBD and into Uptown New Orleans. The landscapes and scenery changed gradually from district to district, and as we rolled through the suburban streets and up St Charles Avenue, it was hard to believe we were actually in the same city. I might not have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen us ride there with my own two eyes. Most of the properties still had similar black wrought-iron fences like Vincenzo’s, but instead of smaller European style apartments they were big, beautiful houses with lush gardens and big trees.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way,

We went further Uptown and passed Tulane and Loyola universities, watching students moving to and from the campuses and sitting around in the sun. Eventually we turned and headed south-east – although since the geographic terminology is based on the bends of the Mississippi River, it was actually across Uptown – and drove along Magazine Street, where the sides of the road were lined with a variety of different shops and stores, all of which still maintained that authentic, slightly rustic New Orleanian vibe. We continued along Magazine Street all the way to the Garden District, a beautiful little area that is as lush and green as the name suggests, and after a few carefully chosen turns, Vincenzo eventually pulled up at a very specific house.
“This,” he announced, with something that almost sounded like a hint of pride (of which he had quite a lot for his city, so that was entirely possible), “is the house that used to belong to Anne Rice.” I’d learnt from Faith that her and Vincenzo had been, and presumably still were, huge fans of the Vampire Chronicles, and I myself had quite enjoyed reading a few of her novels in the past, so it was quite exciting to behold a building that held such a quirky and unique place in modern literature history.

Anne Rice's former New Orleans residence.

Anne Rice’s former New Orleans residence.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

After we’d done the rounds on our Uptown excursion, Vincenzo turned the scooter in the direction of home… only to have it come puttering to a stop.
“Ahh…” I don’t know the first thing about anything mechanical, but I was fairly confident that that wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Hmm… that’s not good… I think we’re just out of gas,” Vincenzo said. He said there was gas station only a few blocks away, so we ended up just wheeling the bike through the streets together. It was a little different without the hum of the scooters engine as we walked along, and I think in that brief moment I truly experienced the suburban serenity that existed in this part of the city. Normally I’m not a fan of the suburbs, but in a place like this even the quiet streets and their big, haunted-looking houses had an strange kind of appeal about them.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

After filling the scooter up with gas, we soon discovered that that hadn’t been the problem, because it still failed to start. As fate would have it, though, we were right near the place where Vincenzo said he takes the bike to get serviced. He managed to drop it off and we had lunch nearby while the problem was sorted out. As I said, I have zero clue about anything mechanical, so I don’t know what was wrong with it, but it was nothing major and it provided a little extra excitement on our Uptown tour. And it meant I got to sample some tasty tacos and a frozen margarita on Magazine Street while we waited.

***

Which leads me to something about New Orleans that I was particularly impressed with: the food. Once again it was largely thanks to Vincenzo that I knew all the good spots to eat at, whether it was beignets at Cafe du Monde, the best Cajun jambalaya at Coop’s Place, burgers at Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, or oysters and fried alligator at the Royal House Oyster Bar. Even getting a Po’boy sandwich on the local deli on the way home one day was an exciting experience for me. Although Louisiana falls towards the edge of what are typically referred to as The Southern States, it’s undeniable that it falls well within the branches of the ‘Southern hospitality’ state of mind, with cheerful and friendly service in every establishment and complete with its own unique cuisine of dishes and flavours, thanks for the Cajun and Creole influences that just aren’t present in the other surrounding states.

On my last evening in New Orleans, Vincenzo and I were set to have another house guest – another Couchsurfer whose request he had accepted a few weeks prior, before I’d even shown up in New Orleans. I’d been mindful of it when I was booking travel arrangements to Austin, which would be my next destination.
“When is your other Couchsurfer coming?” I asked him, sitting at the guest computer in the lobby at his work one evening, while he sat behind the check-in desk. “When do I have to leave?”
“Well, she’s coming on Wednesday,” Vincenzo said to me. “But if your host in Austin can’t have you before Thursday, you can always stay too. There’s still plenty of room.” After all, it’s not like I was taking up the spare bed.
“Okay, well… I’m booking it now. You sure it’s okay for me to stay until Thursday?”
“Well I mean, you can stay for longer, if you like. Stay forever, I don’t mind…” he said rather wistfully as he turned back to his own computer screen. He had a nonchalance in his voice, though I think he might have just been playing it cool, because I really believed that deep down he actually meant it, and would have loved it if I’d stayed. Which actually made it a little hard for me to book that bus ticket – I really had been having such a great time with him. I would have loved to stay longer too, but I did have a set date that I had to reach the west coast by, and there were still a lot of things I wanted to see between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

So in the early evening on Wednesday, Johanna from Sweden arrived in New Orleans after a tour through Central America. Vincenzo was busy cooking in the kitchen, and I was coming back from taking Princess for a walk. We must have seemed like a pretty domestic pair, because after the introductions I had to establish that I was in fact a Couchsurfer too, and that we weren’t actually a couple living together. Although in the end I ended up playing host for Johanna that evening, since Vincenzo had some other business to which he had to attend. He was actually in the midst of recording some songs with another musician friend of his, and since his house was quite susceptible to extra sounds and noises, he’d asked if I might be able to take Johanna for a walk around the city while they were recording. So the two of us exchanged travellers tales and the obligatory US customs horror stories as I took Johanna through the streets of the French Quarter that I had called home for the last week. We did loops through the streets and down around Jackson Square, and I found myself regurgitating all the information that I had absorbed from Vincenzo and Faith about the history of the city, and the culture and the layout, and I surprised myself at how much I had actually learnt and taken in.
“And how long have you been here?” Only a week?” Clearly Johanna was pretty impressed at how fast I had acquired the knowledge, too.
“Yeah. Well… I had a good teacher,” I said with a smile, assuring her that she would be in good hands with Vincenzo as her guide to the city. We headed over to Coop’s Place for  some traditional New Orleanian food for dinner before eventually heading back home.

***

My last night in New Orleans was a little emotional. I was, as always, so very excited to continue on with my journey, but I hadn’t felt this sad about leaving a particular city since I’d left Berlin for the first timeleaving Dublin had been emotional too, but that was compounded by the stress of the US customs and regulations. In a similar way that I’d loved the weirdness and quirkiness of Berlin, New Orleans had captured a lot of my imagination, and a little piece of my heart. And then of course, there was Vincenzo. I felt positively blessed to have met him so early on in my stay. Not only was he gorgeous and had provided excellent companionship, he was so passionate about his city that his excitement and enthusiasm just proved to be infectious. Similar to Joris and Thijs in Amsterdam, or Tomas and Matej in Prague, having a host and a guide who is so in love with the city they live in turns a typical touristic stay into quite a heart-warming and memorable experience. Vincenzo made me fall in love with New Orleans as much as he was in love with it, and for that I am extremely grateful.

We’d grown quite fond of each other, Vincenzo and I, and had become remarkably close during the nine or so days I ended up staying in New Orleans. We made this bond, this connection – it’s hard to describe, but it was quite unlike anything I’d felt with anyone else, and to this day I still don’t think I’ve ever had such a connection with another person. I tried saying my goodbyes the night before – without getting to sad or emotional – in bed before we went to sleep: my bus was pretty early the following day, and I knew that Vincenzo wasn’t a morning person at all. But he still managed to rouse himself from his slumber as morning was finally breaking, and give me one last kiss goodbye before I loaded up with all my belonging and hit the road once again. I was excited about the rest of my journey, but my current mood and overload of feelings was going to make the two bus rides to Austin rather depressing, and there was no denying how much I was going to miss Vincenzo, little Princess, and the incomparable city of New Orleans.

Vincenzo and Princess.

Candid camera shot of Vincenzo and Princess. He hates it, but it’s one of my favourites.

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The Kindness of Strangers: Part 2

Often when I reflect on my travels I find myself becoming rather overwhelmed when I remember all the random acts of kindness that I experienced from almost complete strangers. Being a backpacker and travelling the world can be an amazing and fulfilling journey, but anyone who’s done it will tell you that it isn’t always easy. You find yourself in some pretty desperate situations, preparing yourself for the worst, when out of nowhere these people descend like guardian angels to remind you that it’s not as bad as it seems, and often offer a helping hand or a shoulder to lean on. I’ve already written specifically about this idea before, about the somewhat surprising friendliness and hospitality I received in Russia, and whether it’s been through Couchsurfing, friends of friends, or quite literally strangers on the street, some of my most memorable experiences have been when someone who barely knew me decided to take a chance on me, completely out of the goodness of their heart. But there’s one story in particular that seems almost too good to be true that I often have to remind myself that it wasn’t actually a dream…

***

After a week of fun, exploring Rio and hanging out with Tom, the morning that my bus was due to depart back to São Paulo finally arrived. It was just past dawn when I had to get up, but Tom even got up as well and made a bit of breakfast and called me a taxi. I have to admit, I got a little emotional when he accompanied me down to the street to say goodbye – we’d become pretty close during my short stay. I had stayed with a lot of Couchsurfing hosts so far, and I’d gotten on really well with every single one of them, but often our friendships were formed around learning about each others cultures, languages and customs. But I think Tom and I had more in common than any of my previous hosts, and our friendship formed so easily and naturally, although it was based on some weird, distant familiarity rather than any kind of cultural discovery. I was definitely sad to be leaving, and I gave him a big hug before climbing into the taxi, and wishing him all the best for his remaining time in Brazil. He wished me well on my travels, and waved until the taxi had disappeared around the corner.

I’d gone with the taxi option for getting to the bus stop because there was very little traffic at that time of day, and so I made it there quite quickly and it was relatively cheap. I was grateful that I had sorted out the issues with my ticket the afternoon that I had arrived in Rio, so it was smooth sailing from there and onto the bus. It was even more empty than the bus from São Paulo had been, and the WIFI was even working this time, so I slept a little bit and otherwise kept myself amused for the six hour bus ride. When I finally made it back to São Paulo, I tried to get in touch with Fausto. When I had been booking my bus tickets to and from Rio, he had suggested that I arrive back in São Paulo with plenty of time before my flight, and offered for me to swing by his apartment to have a shower, freshen up, and have some dinner before getting another taxi to the airport. However, I hadn’t been in touch with him since the morning I left São Paulo just under a week ago, and I hadn’t even ended up meeting him or any of his friends while I had been in Rio. I had exchanged a few text messages with one of his friends, but in the end the plans hadn’t matched up very well, so I’d spent my time hanging out with Tom.

At first I had tried to send a message through the internet with iMessage. I wasn’t sure if it had worked or not, so I sent a regular text message saying hello, and asking if he had received the earlier text.
Shortly afterwards I got a reply: “Did not get any messages.”
“Oh, okay. Was just letting you know I’m back in São Paulo 🙂 ”
“I never heard back from you. Thought you were already gone. Safe trip.”
“Oh my plane is tonight. I just got back with plenty of time to get to the airport, like you suggested.”
“Hope u had fun in Rio.”

I stared at that final message, a clear allusion to the fact I was not going to be seeing him again before I left Brazil. A combination of anger, frustration and nervousness began brewing inside me. It’s easy to play the blame game – we hadn’t contacted each other while I’d been away, and I had assumed that our previous plans had still been in order, while clearly he hadn’t. Maybe he was mad that I hadn’t met him or his friends while I was in Rio? Maybe he had legitimately forgotten and was just too busy to have me come over for those last few hours? Maybe I was reading too much into it, but his messages didn’t seem to indicate I was at all welcome, so I found myself facing the prospect of another nine hours in this city with nowhere to go, no one to call, and speaking practically none of the native language. I think it was the first time in the entire two weeks that I had spent in Brazil where I actually felt scared.

I could have headed straight to the airport, but it was just after 4pm, and my flight was scheduled to leave at 1am. There had to be better ways to spend my last hours in Brazil than sitting on the floor in the airport terminal, so after catching a bus further into the city I wandered around until I found something – anything – familiar. And that’s how I found myself in a Subway restaurant, desperately begging the employee for the WIFI password on the condition that I bought a sandwich. I must have looked as desperate as I felt, because he looked overcome with sympathy and gave it to me, despite it not being their usual policy. I thanked him profusely, and began scouring the web on my iPad while eating my food.

What I wanted more than anything was a shower, or some way of freshening up and maybe putting on a clean outfit before boarding the plane. I’d already done a lot of travelling that morning, so I wasn’t feeling particularly great, and I still had a long slight ahead of me. A quick search of the airport at Guarulhos told me that it was absolutely awful and had no such amenities I’d be able to use, so I searched for anywhere where I might be able to use a shower. There were a few beauty salons and health spas, some of which might have had showers but none that explicitly said so – as far as I could tell and translate –  and none that were close enough that I would be able to get there before they closed for the day. There were pools and gyms, but anything like that required some kind of membership, and I wasn’t about to sign up to a Brazilian gym just for a shower.

In the end I realised there was one place where I knew I would be welcome that would definitely have a shower  – a gay sauna. As fate would have it, there was one that wasn’t even too far away – relatively, for São Paulo – and as the battery of my iPad was quickly depleting, it was coming to crunch time and I had to make a decision. I’d been writing down a bunch of addresses on some scrap paper, but in the end I left the Subway, found a taxi, and showed him the address for the sauna. It was about 15 minutes away, and when I arrived I was still feeling that bitter combination of frustration and nervousness. The place didn’t look like a sauna at all – it was a big, spooky looking house with lots of lush greenery in the front garden, tall fences, and a path that presumably led to a front door which was concealed by the vegetation. I followed it through the garden and arrived at the building, and I had to ring a doorbell and be buzzed in. I didn’t need to say anything, but I imagine there was some kind of camera, what with everything I had seen in Brazil about security measures so far. Once I was inside, it definitely felt a lot more like a sauna. There was a pretty sleazy vibe in the place, and there were a couple of guys sitting around the main entry room, talking quietly or gathering their things to leave.  I tried to talk to the guy who was sitting at the payment office, but he didn’t speak much English.

One of the guys in the room noticed I was struggling, and came over to help translate and assist. He was tall, and seemed to be a little drunk, but he was quite friendly.
“Your… your bag? What are you going to do with it?” He was referring to my huge backpack strapped to my shoulders, containing most of my worldly possessions.
“I just… I wanted…” I was already regretting my decision to come here – clearly it wasn’t working out. “Don’t they have lockers?”
“Well, yes,” the tall guy said, “but not that big. And you can’t leave it here… No, I wouldn’t leave it. It’s not safe here. Are you… are you okay?”
I sighed, realising how pointless this endeavour had been. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just looking for a place to freshen up.” I turned around, marched out of there, and plonked myself down on the gutter, completely out of ideas. After about five minutes, the tall guy came up the path and out of the greenery, and noticed me sitting by myself.

“Hi… You know, if you’re looking for a place to stay, there are a few cheap hotels up the road. I could help you check into one, if you like?” I ended up explaining my entire situation to him, and he listened carefully.
“Well, I don’t know, exactly. But you shouldn’t stay here. Do you want to try one of the hotels?” At this point I was just grateful for some company, so I agreed to at least walk with him on his way home. His name was Rafael, and he asked me some more curious questions about myself, so I told him all about my travels.
“Wow, an Australian,” he said with a gentle smile, “so far from home! Anyway, I mean, I would offer for you to come spend a few hours at my place, but, I don’t think my boyfriend would like that.” He giggled a little and smiled, and even though it didn’t really solve anything, I couldn’t help but smile back, and I guess that made me feel a little happier.

“Now, lots of these places would try to rip you off if you didn’t speak Portuguese. But I will help you and make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Oh, wow, okay. Thank you so much.” It just seemed so surreal how quickly my circumstances had changed.
“It’s no problem. When I was younger, I was living in England. I met so many lovely people, and they were always so nice and generous to me. Now, when I meet a traveller in my home country, I want to help those people in the same way other people helped me.” It was such a kind and simple adherence to the ‘pay it forward’ mentality that it actually made my heart swell just a little bit. I’d been so scared of running into less than favourable strangers in Brazil, yet here I was wandering down the street with a man who seemed to be the epitome of selfless kindness.

Unfortunately, the first two hotels that Rafael tried to check me into were completely full.
“You know, thank you so much, but you really don’t have to do this,” I said as we left the second one. “I’d only be around for a few hours anyway, it’s probably not even worth it.” But he dismissed my concerns, insisting that there was another hotel nearby that would definitely have some room. I shrugged and followed him, not really having any other bright ideas of my own. This third place was a little nicer looking that the previous two, and after talking to the receptionist for a couple of minutes, Rafael turned to me with a grin and signalled me with a thumbs up. However, when I’d reached into my wallet to sort out the last of my real, he shook his head and shooed my money away.
“Please, no, this is on me. I know what it’s like to be in your shoes.”

I was totally shocked. This man who I had met no more than half an hour ago was willing to fully pay for a hotel room that he knew I was only going to spend a few hours showering and possibly sleeping in. I know in a lot of other ‘stranger danger’ situations that that would seem incredibly creepy, but there was nothing sleazy or suspicious about Rafael at all. He finalised the booking, explained my situation to the staff and said that I would be leaving again that evening, and than accompanied me up to the room to make sure everything was as it should be. It was a small, simple room with two single beds, a small desk and a bathroom, but it was all that I needed. Rafael wrote down his phone number, and told me to call him if I had any other problems while I was in Berlin.
“I just… thank you so much,” I said to him as I gave him a hug goodbye. “This is so generous of you, I wish there was some way I could repay you.”
“You just have to pay it forward,” he said with a smile. “You sounded like you were having a terrible afternoon. I would hate that to be your final, lasting impression of my country.”
“Well, you’ve completely turned it around with this!” I said with a smile. “If you’re ever in Australia, I’ll be sure to make it up to you.”

And with that we said our goodbyes, and I showered, packed and even had time to squeeze in a quick nap. Eventually the time came for me to head to the airport, and I managed to take a photo of the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge, possibly one of the more recognisable sites of São Paulo. It had been shrouded in fog on the morning of my arrival, but tonight it was lighting up the night.

Passing the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge.

Passing the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge.

***

The rest of my night at the airport went by smoothly. I checked my bags, ate some food, did some duty free shopping with my remaining cash and then just enjoyed the serenity of an empty airport, with short queues and very little noise. But the whole time I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face due to the whole completely unexpected act of kindness that Rafael had done for me. Something that like can really restore your faith in humanity, and I really wonder if he knows just how much he completely turned around my bad day. And I think the most beautiful thing about those random acts of kindness, helping out strangers in need, is that when they do deeply affect someone, they don’t just stop there. Because I do believe that a person is more likely to pass that kindness on, pay it forward, and contribute to someone else’s life by doing something that could mean so little to them, but mean the world to that someone else. I know it’s definitely changed my perspective on the world. The world can be a scary and terrible place, but if you give it a chance, there is an abundance of kindness just waiting to be unleashed upon you and make it all worthwhile.

Sights to See and Sights of the Sea

For a city that has a handful of extremely recognisable and world famous icons, I didn’t do an awful lot of sightseeing in Rio de Janerio. James had mentioned the cable car ride to Sugarloaf Mountain, a pretty popular tourist attraction on the eastern edge of the city. Though, when I’d probed Tom about it later, he had shrugged, appearing pretty indifferent.
“I mean, yeah, it’s a great view,” he said. “It’s one of those things that everyone just does, know you? Almost without thinking about it. If you do go, just make sure it’s on a day when the weather is nice and clear.” I’d taken the advice into account, but there was no denying that on the bright and sunny days, the allure of the beach down the road was far more powerful than any urge to climb a mountain. The same could be said for Christ the Redeemer – the journey to actually get up the mountain to the base of the monument wasn’t a breezy walk in the park, and I can’t admit to having any strong spiritual calling from Jesus to go look at the huge idol up close. So I settled for the glimpses that Tom and I had had of the statue through the clouds on our hike a little closer to home, satisfied that I was probably experiencing a few more interesting things in Brazil than statues and landscapes.

But there was one other sight in particular that James had described that had piqued my interest much more than either of the mountains. “There’s the steps at Lapa,” he’d said as he rattled off a quick list of things that would be worth seeing, and perhaps it was the fact it was something I’d never actually heard of that made me research the steps and eventually want to go and see them. I jumped on Google and did a brief search of some of the other sights in the area – Lapa was a neighbourhood closer to the centre of Rio de Janeiro – and on one of the afternoons where Tom was at work, I set out via the bus and metro to explore a little bit more of the city.

***

I found Rio to be a curious city because it felt very decentralised. I’m much more familiar with the concept of a city centre, an obvious hub of activity that has a greater population density, is usually a little more expensive than the rest of the city, and has lots of things to see and do and entertain the tourists. But as soon as I stepped off the metro and emerged into the more central streets of Rio, I realised this wasn’t the case. The touristic focus of the city is by and large the coastal areas, and the regions that have the gorgeous beaches and natural beauty within the landscapes. That’s what people want to do and see when they come to Rio – I too had been primarily more interested in catching some rays and working on my tan than I ever had been about the sights I was about to visit.

Now, Rio is a pretty big city, so maybe there was a more accurate, central hub that I didn’t know about. To be fair, most of the city it actually based long the coast, around the mountains and the landscapes, and so the “centre” really just seemed to be the midpoint between the northern and southern parts of the coast. But the area I was in looked not far off being a ghost town. A lot of the buildings looked particularly old and run down, graffiti and litter were present – not overwhelmingly, but consistently – and I was very quickly introduced to another far less glamorous side of the city, which I had a feeling didn’t see half as many tourists as the beaches at Copacabana or Ipanema. It told a different story, a toned down version of the rife poverty that existed in the favelas over the hill, the concentration of the Brazilian slums. It was actually quite confronting, and for the first time during my stay in Rio I actually felt the mild presence of danger and the need for a little more caution than usual – a fear that I had been secretly harbouring about the city yet had never before now been actualised. But I kept my wits about me and moved on, taking a few photographs of the significant buildings and trying me best to not look too much like an ignorant tourist. Firstly there was the Teatro Municipal, considered one of the most important and beautiful theatres in the whole of Brazil.

Teatro Municipal

Teatro Municipal

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

After that I made my way further west over to Lapa, where there were two more sights that I had read about. The first was the Arches of Lapa: the ancient Carioca Aqueduct. When I first read about them, I assumed I had just misheard James say ‘steps’, but they were actually something else entirely. I have to admit, I was expecting a little more than what I saw. To be fair, there was nothing misleading about the name – the were definitely arches. However, they’re been described as great architectural feat, a landmark of the city, and I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed when I discovered the building looking particularly dirty on one end, as though it had suffered some major neglect. Although in the end it all ended up feeling rather fitting for the ghost town vibe I was starting to get from the area.

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

But as I followed my directions down a few small side streets, levels of fear and uncertainty slightly but gradually rising, I turned a corner and instantly felt like I was in another city, with an entirely different mood and atmosphere. Escadaria Selarón – Selarón’s Staircase, or the Steps of Lapa – loomed ahead of me, an explosion of colour that appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the otherwise dank and drab corner of the city.

The Steps of Lapa

Escadaria Selarón

The entire staircase was decorated with an array of coloured materials.

The entire staircase was decorated with an array of coloured materials.

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

Honestly, I hadn’t done that much research into what the steps actually were, so I was completely blown away when I stumbled across them. The entire staircase had essentially been turned into an artwork, with barely a patch of free cement that wasn’t adorned by a tile or ceramic in some way. There were words in the steps, there were flags, there were pictures – it was such a complex and diverse range of colours and images, there was nothing you could do but slowly ascend the staircase while marvelling at the walls around you, taking care to not trip up them in the process. There was a substantially larger amount of tourists on the steps, too – it seems as though this is one of the few attractions that people venture out this way to actually visit. I took my time picking out some fellow tourists who seemed trustworthy enough, and asked them to take my picture on the steps.

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

It was actually quite a long staircase, and as I climbed further I realised that the staircase was actually a street. There were houses along either side, front doors opening directly onto the staircase, and I few times I actually noticed Brazilian families coming and going from their homes. I wondered what it must be like to literally live on a tourist attraction – frustrating at times, but surely a beautiful backdrop to spend even the most relaxed and casual days of your life. When I reached the top, it was interesting to gaze back down the steps and realise how unremarkable they looked from above. Almost all of the tiled surfaces faced downwards, and you could only really be confronted with all the colours as you climbed the staircase. I sat there at the top of the steps, partly to sit and marvel at the complexity and beauty of the whole thing, and also partly because I had discovered an adorable little stray cat which I couldn’t stop photographing.

The view from the top of the steps.

The view from the top of the steps.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

The steps were really interesting though, and something I was so glad I had taken the time and effort to go and see. Now, whenever I see a movie that’s set in Brazil and there is a visual of the steps at Lapa, no matter how brief or insignificant, I can’t help but shout out “Hey, I’ve been there!” to anyone who will listen. It wasn’t a hugely popular attraction, such as, say, the Eiffel Tower, and I think the fact that there were less people made it even more memorable, and something that I really will carry with me for the rest of my life.

***

That day was the only real sightseeing that I did while I was in Rio. After seven months on the road, it’s a little difficult to muster up the enthusiasm for that kind of thing all the time, but I felt satisfied with what I had managed to see. The rest of the sunny days I spent hanging out with Tom, going to the beach with him and James, and for the most part just relaxing and taking it easy. People sometimes underestimate how taxing on your mind and body travelling can be. Sure, it’s essentially an extended holiday, but you’re constantly moving your body around from one unfamiliar environment to the next, and all the new things you see and learn about and discover can build up to overwhelm your mind. Rio provided the perfect opportunity for me to just kick back, soak up the sun, sand and sea, and really not have a care in the world.

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

And there's me, diving into the surf.

And there’s me, diving into the surf.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

And of course, the experience wouldn't be complete without a selfie.

And of course, the experience wouldn’t be complete without a selfie.

When the sun comes out, Rio de Janerio really does become, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities I've ever visited.

When the sun comes out, Rio de Janerio really does become, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

The Road to Rio

After about a week in São Paulo, it was time for me to move on. When I had first arrived in Brazil I had discussed with Fausto my options for visiting other cities, and whether there was an easy and affordable way to get to any of them. The city that was first and foremost in my mind was obviously Rio de Janeiro, and Fausto told me that it was only about six hours on a bus to get there. After some of the other long-haul journeys I’d taken, six hours on a bus seemed like nothing at all, so I went ahead and booked a ticket leaving São Paulo in about a weeks time. However, I also had to book my return ticket, since I already had my flight booked out of Brazil from São Paulo, something I’d had to do in a split second decision during my minor crisis at Dublin airport. After doing that, I spent my free time during the rest of the week looking for somewhere to stay while I would be in Rio. Fausto was looking up and recommending some pretty cool looking hostels – and most importantly, advising me on all the better areas of the city in which I should stay – but I directed more of my efforts into searching for Couchsurfing hosts and writing requests, and in the end it paid off: a friendly-looking American gay guy in his mid-20s who was currently living in Ipanema had agreed to host me.

Jump forward in time, after my nights of drinking and partying in São Paulo and waking up in the wrong city, and I was on my way to the bus station, using the public transportation of São Paulo for the first time. Fausto hadn’t spoken too highly of it, but there wasn’t anything wrong with it, really. I had to catch a bus and then two different metro lines before I got to the major bus terminal, and it took over an hour to eventually get there, but everything went smoothly and according to plan, and nobody tried to rob or pick pocket me in broad daylight, so I have no complaints. I actually overestimated how long it would take me to arrive, since I had also allowed enough time to pick up my tickets and make sure I knew where I was going within the terminal – a process which turned out to be remarkably simple – so I ended up having to sit around for a little while waiting for my departure time. Although, to be sure, that’s definitely a better feeling than sprinting through there terminal because you’re running late. Once we were on board and finally got moving, I chatted for a little bit to the guy who was sitting next to me, but eventually he moved away to where there were two empty seats, so I had a little more room for the rest of the journey. It was a beautiful day outside, and Brazil has some gorgeous countryside scenery, so I just relaxed and was able to quite comfortably enjoy the ride.

Just a taste of much of the interesting and contrasting architecture I saw along the way.

Just a taste of much of the interesting and contrasting architecture I saw along the way.

The mountains got a lot greener the closer I got to Rio.

The mountains got a lot greener the closer I got to Rio.

I arrived around in the late afternoon, but before I went off into the city I decided to pick up my ticket for my bus ride home, so that I didn’t have to worry about it in the early morning when I was departing. I am so thankful that I decided to do that, because since both my journeys had been booked with two different bus services – yet I’d only received one printed confirmation when I booked them together – there was a huge misunderstanding within the entire system. I was sent from counter to counter of the different bus companies, trying to explain to people what I had done and what I was trying to do, with the fact only about half the people spoke any English proving to be a rather large hurdle. It took almost another hour of exasperatedly trying to make myself understood before they realised they were looking for my booking in the wrong place. After that, it was was simple as it had been at the station in São Paulo, but I secretly thanked myself for having the foresight of going through that whole ordeal earlier rather than when I actually had a bus to catch.

***

After all that had happened, I followed the directions my Couchsurfing host had given me to get from the bus terminal to his place. There was a bus route that would take me most of way, right down to the beach in Ipanema, one of the better known neighbourhoods in the south of Rio De Janerio. His directions were very good and I had no problems finding the place, but he’d told me to send him a text message when I arrived, rather than dialling any buzzer or number. I arrived to find a nice looking apartment building with the typical Brazilian level of security – this particular building had a tall black wrought iron fence – so I sent my new host a message and waited. The timing couldn’t have been better, actually, because he was just arriving home minutes after I had sent the message.

Tom was actually an American, originally from Baltimore, but he was living in Rio teaching English. He was a tall guy – something that made him stand out amongst the generally shorter Brazilian men – but he was super friendly from the moment I met him at the front gate.
“So, the reason you can’t dial my apartment,” Tom said as we went through the gate and around to the elevator, “is that it used to be the maids quarters to the apartment next door. So if you ring the bell, it just goes to their apartment.” I chuckled to myself, wondering how many awkward situations that might have caused for Tom in the past, but once I arrived he had a spare set of keys for me, so that wasn’t something I’d have to worry about while I was staying with him. “Though I gotta warn you, it’s obviously not the biggest place,” he said with a chuckle himself, but I assured him it wouldn’t be a problem.

It was a pretty small space, but not too small – although ‘cozy’ isn’t exactly the best descriptor for somewhere in the humid tropics, that’s kind of how it felt. There was a main room that was essentially a living room, dining room and kitchen all in one, a small bathroom, and a separate bedroom. There was a sofa that folded out into a bed, although it took about half the room when it was open, so we left it shut for the time being. I settled in a little bit as Tom and I chatted and got to know each other. I told him about where I’d been so far, and he was pretty excited to learn that I’d visited his hometown of Baltimore. I think he was overcome with a wave of nostalgia when I pulled out the timetables of the MARC train that I had caught from DC to get there, which had been sitting in the bottom of my backpack since then. We were already getting on really well, and I was confident I’d already made another success story to add to my Couchsurfing experiences.

***

When I’d been in São Paulo, some of Fausto’s friends had told me that they were going to be going to Rio the same weekend that I was going be there, and invited me to come and join them at the parties that they were going to be attending. From the way they had described them, it sounded like they were going to be pretty over the top and lavish events, but I had told them I would have to wait and see what the situation was like with my Couchsurfing host in Rio. I can only imagine how rude it would look to turn up on someone’s doorstep, drop your bags off and then head off straight away to hang out with someone else. Though Tom turned out be a really cool guy, so when he told me that there was a friend of a friend of his in town who was also from Australia, and that he’d said we would be meeting up with him for a drink that evening, I decided to join them instead of chasing up Fausto’s friends. While they’d all been incredibly nice and welcoming during my time in São Paulo, I never felt like I’d totally fitted in with their kind of crowd. They were all a bit older, and all about finer and nicer things – half the time I felt like I didn’t currently possess any clothes that would meet the dress code to wherever they were going. Tom, on the other hand, was a totally chilled out guy who was living the casual, simplistic life of an ex-pat who lived a five minute walk away from a Brazilian beach, with zero hint of pretentiousness. There was definitely already a good connection between the two of us, so I stuck with him and headed out to meet this other Australian.

James and Tom had never met each other, but had been put touch by a mutual friend that Tom had met during his time previously visiting Australia. As a traveller it’s always nice to have a gay-friendly point of contact or someone you can meet up with when you arrive in a new place, especially in potentially dangerous places such as Brazil. We met James outside Tom’s building and had a quick greeting followed by a couple of awkward moments establishing how we all actually knew each other.
“So wait, you’re Australian?” James asked, pointing at me. “But how do you know each other?”
“Well… we don’t. I mean, we just met half an hour ago?” I said.
“But you’re staying with him?” James seemed a little puzzled, but when we explained the whole Couchsurfing thing it all made sense to him.

Tom lived in the heart of Ipanema – very close to the beach, and even closer to heap of different bars and restaurants down the main strip leading away from the beach. Tom chose a favourite bar of his and we sat down at a table and started off with some beers.
“I wanna try a Caipirinha,” James had said when it came time for the next round, and he proceeded to study the menu. “They’re supposed to be the speciality here in Brazil.” This was all news to me, so Tom and James explained: a Caipirinha is a cocktail made with muddled limes, ice, sugar and cachaça, a type of Brazilian rum made from sugar cane. However, in Brazil they don’t use limes, but a kind of green lemon called ‘limon subtil’ that is native to the region.
“Technically isn’t not a real Caipirinha unless it uses those Brazilian lemons,” Tom said, “but this places makes them with all different kinds of flavours.” We all decided to try different ones – however, I wasn’t much of a fan of the strawberry Caipirinha, and after tasting the ‘real’ Caipirinha Tom has ordered I wish I had chosen that rather than the pink, bastardised version.

Myself, Tom and James with our beers at the start of the night.

Myself, Tom and James with our beers at the start of the night.

We sat in the bar chatting for at least a few hours. James was a really nice guy too. He’d been travelling around South America for a few months, and we both agreed it was kind of nice to talk to someone who actually perfectly understood all the weird slang words and ‘Australian-isms’ that we tend to use in everyday language without even realising it. We even confused Tom a few times, but we all got on really well. After a while we decided to leave and possibly head elsewhere. There was a gay night at q nightclub that James had heard about and wanted to check out, so Tom walked us there, but it looked a little dodgy and not that great. I was actually feeling pretty worn down from my bus trip, and no one was really in that much of a partying mood – I think it was a Tuesday, after all – so we ended up bidding James goodnight as he headed back to his hostel, and Tom and I went back to his place to crash and call it a night. It had been a quiet but really enjoyable evening, and all in all I was already pretty pleased with how my stay in Rio was turning out.

Lazy Days in DC

So after our long day of sightseeing on Saturday, Robert and I returned to his apartment after the open house had finished. We were both so exhausted that we quickly abandoned any notion of going out to a bar or club and instead had dinner in the neighbourhood and watched a movie at home. I did, however, have another pressing issue that I had been trying to deal with the past few days. When I had initially messaged Robert on Couchsurfing, he had agreed to host me for three nights, though I wasn’t able to stay any longer than that, because he already had another Couchsurfer who was arriving on Sunday. My initial plan had been to try and travel back to New York via Philadelphia, since Melissa had a few friends who lived there, but it turned out that they were unavailable during that time, and I’d had zero luck with arranging anything via Couchsurfing either. Things were getting pretty desperate, and it was looking like I might have to buy an expensive last minute ticket back to New York, even though I’d been hoping to see a little more of the country out here before returning to the Big Apple.

And then out of the blue comes Mike. After meeting him on Friday night, I’d sent a message telling him I’d had a nice time and it had been lovely to meet him. He’d taken a little while to reply, so much that it had caught me a little off guard when he did, saying that he would really love it if he could see me again before I left. I considered it for a moment, knowing how forward and pointed a request it was going to be – but I’d become quite skilled at writing such requests thanks to Couchsurfing – and then decided to write to Mike explaining that I would love to see him again as well, except I would be leaving DC the following morning… unless I could find a place to stay. I tentatively proposed the option of staying with him for a few days, and despite having a bit of study to do and having classes during the week, he said it would be a pleasure to have me over. I have to admit I was actually a little surprised Mike agreed – an international one-night-stand that asks if they can temporarily live with you does seem a little bit dodgy – but nevertheless I was grateful, and excited that I would actually get to see him again. When I’d parted ways with him the morning after, I hadn’t been entirely sure if that was ever going to happen.

Mike was busy during the day on Sunday though, and had a bit of study to do, so I delayed my departure from Robert’s place for as long as I could. His next Couchsurfer wasn’t arriving until the evening, so the two of us spent the afternoon visiting the Smithsonian Zoo which was conveniently located right down the road from his house. We walked around in the hot sun, admiring the adorable otters and the playful elephants, and laughing at the some of the ridiculous warning signs that you could only ever find in America. Afterwards we headed home, and I gathered my things and bid farewell to Robert, preparing myself for the subway trip to the other side of town.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

The otters were adorable.

The otters were adorable.

One of the zoos three elephants.

One of the zoos three elephants.

Galapagos tortoises.

Galapagos tortoises.

I don't know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

I don’t know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

***

Mike was still busy studying when I arrived, but I spent the rest of the afternoon working on my blog while he finished his revision. When he was done it was time for dinner, but he didn’t have much at home so he suggested that we should go and eat out somewhere. It was nice, getting a little dressed up and going on… well, I guess it was like going on a date. I hadn’t done anything quite like that in a while, but Mike was such a gentleman that I don’t think I could have said no if I’d wanted to – but of course, being the gentleman that he was, obviously I didn’t. We had more conversations over dinner, and then we went for a walk through the streets down to Dupont Circle, one of the major intersections and basically the centre of Washington DC. He told me stories – brief history lessons about the features of the city, as well more personal ones as we got to know each other better – and we ambled through the cool evening air until we finally made it back to his apartment block.

With the exception of a day trip to Baltimore, the rest of my time spent in DC was very relaxed. Mike left me a spare key when he went to university, so I could come and go as I liked, and I did make a second trip down to the National Mall to see the parts of the Natural History Museum that I had missed last time I was there. But for the most part I took some time out from the tourist activities and just chilled out at Mike’s. He had an old acoustic guitar that had been kept in beautiful condition, but he had confessed that he’d neglected playing it in recent years, so one afternoon I pulled it out and sat down and strummed to myself for a little while. I did have my ukulele with me wherever I went, which sufficed to a point, but it had been months since I had been able to get my hands on a full size guitar, and it felt really good. I also, at the insistence of some of my friends back home, ventured out to try some ‘traditional American’ foods. My friend Gemma had repeatedly said “hot dog with cheese”, but I’d gone one step further and taken an apparently local classic: a chilli dog and cheese fries. I’m not going to lie, it was absolutely amazing, but when you finish off a meal like that you understand why America has an issue with obesity.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog - so bad that it's good.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog – so bad that it’s good.

I was also in town to experience something which has unfortunately become a somewhat regular occurrence in the United States – a mass shooting. Okay, to say I experienced anything is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but I was definitely in the city at the time of the Washington Navy Yard shooting which, with twelve fatalities and three injured, was the second-deadliest mass shooting to take place on a US military base. It was kind of surreal, and more than a little terrifying, to wake up after Mike had already left that morning and turn on the news to see that there was a killer on the loose in Washington DC. I jumped on Google Maps to find the exact location of the Navy Yard, and while it wasn’t exactly close to Mike’s home near U Street, it was definitely a little too close for comfort. I followed the news all morning, reluctant to even leave the apartment, but by midday the worst of the disaster seemed to be over, and eventually it was made public that the perpetrator had been gunned down and killed by the police. It was a solemn mood in the US Capital that day, and I even sent Mike a little message – despite his university being on the other side of the city – to check that he was okay. It was a reminder of the fragility of human life, and unfortunately it’s a reminder that the United States receives with an alarming regularity. I counted my blessings that that was the closest I ever came to gun violence during my time in America.

***

The evenings were spent at home with Mike, making dinner, sharing stories, drinking wine and watching The Walking Dead on Netflix. I think he might have felt bad for not really taking me out to see or do anything, but I had never expected that of him when I asked to stay with him, and to be honest I think I much preferred just hanging out with him – having someone to talk to, and making that human connection. He reassured me when I got an email from my mother telling me that the Germans had sent angry-sounding letters back to my address in Australia, regarding the fine that I never paid for not having a ticket on the U-Bhan, and he printed out my ticket for me when I finally booked my seat on a bus back to New York City. I stayed with him for four nights, and in the end I was a little sad to be leaving, but we didn’t let it get too emotional as I kissed him goodbye on my last morning there. Mike had to head off earlier than I did, so after he’d left I wrote a little note, thanking him for everything he’d done for me, and left it for him in the kitchen. I was back in New York by the time I got his reply, but it definitely made me blush, knowing that he appeared to have been just as smitten about me as I was about him.
“…I’m so lucky and happy to have met and spent time with you. You are an amazing guy. If we were closer in age and lived in the same country I’d ask you to marry me. I hope I can find someone like you some day. Best of luck on your travels and be safe…”
Needless to say, it was something to gush over and gossip to Melissa with over a bottle of wine back in New York, and it was once again another example of the amazing people that you can meet and welcome into your life when you decide to take a chance on a stranger.

A Trip to the Mall: the museums of DC

The bus to Washington, DC probably wasn’t that long (I’ve definitely had worse experiences with buses), but considering the way I was feeling after the previous evening it felt like the journey was never going to end. Getting out of New York City alone took us almost an hour, due to the sudden torrential downpour that had created havoc in the traffic and sent most of Manhattan into gridlock. What was generally a four hour bus ride would end up taking almost six hours, not including our rest stop at the border between Pennsylvania and Delaware. I got off the bus and wandered around the small shopping centre that was there, partly because my hungover self was craving a chocolate chip muffin, but mostly just to be able to add another state to the list that I had technically visited.

There's probably more of Delaware to see, but we were only passing through.

“Hello, I’m in Delaware.”

After that it was back on the bus to plough through the dreary weather for another several hours before finally making it to Union Station in Washington, DC, where I would be meeting my Couchsurfing host for the next few days. His name was also Robert, and he was a server at one of the restaurants inside the station. I had messaged ahead to let him know how late my bus was running, but it turned out that he had been caught up at work anyway, and he didn’t end up finishing until shortly after I arrived in DC, so I guess the delay worked out for the best in the end – though not for my fragile condition. When he finally finished and we’d met and done our introductions, Robert led me towards the underground metro system that would take us back to his apartment across town. The DC metro has a tap-on/tap-off system which requires you to purchase a plastic card to top up with money. There was no paper ticket alternative for short term visitors, and the system had no way to return the card after your stay, like you can with the Oyster Cards in London. But the card itself was only $2, so at worst it was still a cheap souvenir.

Robert lived in Northwest Washington which was, with the exception of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, a mostly residential area. He explained a little bit about the layout of the city and where all the major attractions and fun things to do were, but when we got home that evening I was completely exhausted from the painful experience of travelling with a hangover. Robert’s apartment was beautifully decorated but also quite small – the Murphy bed that folded up into the wall during the day meant that the living room was also the bedroom – and I lasted as long as I could before eventually passing out on the couch, planning to properly starting my DC visit the following day.

***

 I’d arrived on a Thursday evening, and Robert had to work on Friday. He’d offered to take me on a tour of the famous monuments in the city when he had time on Saturday, but today I would have to entertain myself. Luckily for me, there were plenty of things to see and do in Washington DC, and even better is that a vast majority of them are free. Firstly, I went with Robert on the metro towards Union Square where his work was, then bid him farewell for the day and made my way over to Capitol Hill. It was a gloomy morning, but I still stopped to take a couple of photos and a cheeky selfie with the Capitol building.

Approaching the Capitol building.

Approaching the United States Capitol building.

Capitol selfie.

Capitol selfie.

The US Flag atop the Library of Congress.

The US Flag atop the Library of Congress.

After that I made my way around the building and down to the National Mall, a promenade situated to the east of Capitol Hill and flanked by a handful of different museums that are all run by the Smithsonian Institution, a government ministered body that organises a range of museums, research centres, and even the zoo here in DC, as well as having affiliates in a number of other states. Because all the museums in the city are essentially provided by the government, they are all completely free to enter. During my time in Europe I had begun to suffer from a term I coined ‘museum fatigue’, but the last museum I had visited had been in London and I decided that perhaps it was time to put on the tourist cap for a little while, visit some free museums and soak up some of the knowledge. First stop was the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which was known to have some impressive exhibits. It was the main rooms that held all the visually impressive displays of early aircrafts, more modern jets and planes, satellites, rockets and a host of other spacecraft, while the rest of the museum had more details about the science and history of aviation and space travel. The museum is also home to a huge IMAX theatre, and I bought a ticket to watch a short documentary called Hubble 3D, in which I learnt a great deal about America’s history of space exploration while being soothed by the sweet voice of the narration provided by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Capitol building as seen from the side the National Mall.

The Capitol building as seen from the side the National Mall.

Space shuttle in the Air and Space Museum.

Space shuttle in the Air and Space Museum.

Satellite.

Satellite.

The halls of the museum were full of air and spacecraft dangling from the ceiling.

The halls of the museum were full of air and spacecraft dangling from the ceiling.

After the Air and Space Museum, I headed over to the other major museum that lines the National Mall: The National Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Some of my biggest passions or interests as a kid were dinosaurs and animals, especially marine animals and sea life, so natural history museums are always a bit of fun for me. There were multiple levels with halls full of animal displays, as well as some interactive exhibits about evolution and the history of the human race. And of course, there were the dinosaur displays, and I tested my own remaining knowledge from the countless hours I spent learning about dinosaurs as a child. There was even a section in the dinosaur wing with researchers and scientists working on uncovering and treating fossils. The walls were made of glass so you could see them in action, and television screens showed the samples they were working on under their powerful electron microscopes. In the insect wing, I also arrived in time for a demonstration with a couple of spiders, including a tarantula. When they volunteer running the show asked I was afraid of them at all, I had to resist the urge to tell him that I’d eaten them for dinner in Cambodia.

Elephant in the main lobby of the Natural History Museum.

Elephant in the main lobby of the Natural History Museum.

Dinosaur fossils.

Dinosaur fossils.

One of the scientists working on uncovering a fossil.

One of the scientists working on uncovering a fossil.

Tarantulas in the show among the spider exhibits.

Tarantulas in the show among the spider exhibits.

I spent several hours at the Natural History Museum, until my feet and back began to ache from all the walking around. I left the National Mall after that, and wandered around central DC for a little while, just exploring some of the streets and getting a feel for the city. It had a very American vibe, but it was still nothing like New York – the streets were exceptionally clean, and it reminded me of Canberra, my own country’s capital city, although DC seemed to have a little bit more excitement going on than Canberra did – which, let’s face it, isn’t too difficult to do.

***

I made a few other visits to the National Mall during my time in DC. On one afternoon I visited the National Museum of the American Indian with Robert, mainly because he’d recommended the restaurant there. It was a cafeteria style eatery that served different kinds of traditional foods from all over the Americas: North, Central and South. However, that day there were also some events on to celebrate the beginning of a Latin American awareness festival, or at least a culturally educational event of some description. Whatever it was, it became dinner and a show.

Show and dance featuring featuring some traditional native North American culture.

Show and dance featuring featuring some traditional Latin American culture.

The main Smithsonian Institution building on the National Mall.

The main Smithsonian Institution building on the National Mall.

The other place that I almost visited was the National Gallery of Art, but I was there on a day when the weather was warming up, so instead of going inside I wandered around the grounds of the gallery, which was displaying a range of contemporary sculptures and artworks.

Sculptures outside the National Gallery of Art. This one is a 3D optical illusion brought to life

Sculptures outside the National Gallery of Art. This one is a 3D optical illusion brought to life

Metal Tree.

Metal Tree.

Pyramid sculpture.

Pyramid sculpture.

This one was my favourite. The rabbit gave off a very 'Alice in Wonderland' vibe for me, but his pose almost seems to be mimicking that of 'The Thinker'. A curious work of art.

This one was my favourite. The rabbit gave off a very ‘Alice in Wonderland’ vibe for me, but his pose almost seems to be mimicking that of ‘The Thinker’. A curious work of art.

There are a large number of other museums around DC, but unfortunately I only visited the main ones located around the National Mall. Some of the other ones are less famous and not as well advertised, but I have to admit that while I do find them interesting and love to take a break from the relaxing kind of holiday to actually learn something, there’s still a limit to the amount of museums I can take. So after a full day of touring the museums on Friday, a headed back to Robert’s in the afternoon for a nap to rejuvenate myself for the night out we had planned.

The Big Apple and Other Fruits: a taste of gay NYC

During my first week or so in New York, I didn’t really do something that I had done extensively while I was in all the other previous cities I’d recently visited, and that was explore the local gay scene. Which is a little surprising, given that a city as huge as New York is bound to have some incredible scenes to discover, but I suppose I was still slightly recovering from the hole that Dublin had corroded in my liver. I’d also been hanging out with Melissa, and while she is fabulously gay-friendly, she wasn’t exactly familiar with Manhattan’s gay nightlife scene, considering that her gay best friend lived in Brooklyn and wasn’t even above the legal drinking age anyway. However, when Mischa came down from Connecticut on the weekend that we ended up going to Six Flags, he had a couple of New Yorker friends who were going out for a few drinks and so we decided to join them.

We went over to Neil’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, which was the on the western side of midtown Manhattan. Hell’s Kitchen was probably closest New York came to having a ‘gay district’, although from what I had heard and what I would eventually discover, the city was a lot like London or Berlin or Paris in that it had numerous clusters of gay venues and parties scattered all over the island, and there wasn’t really a ‘central’ district of Manhattan because the whole thing is a complete metropolis, north to south and east to west. Historically the locations of the more popular gay areas had shifted, and right now Hell’s Kitchen seemed to be the place to be. We stopped by Neil’s briefly, where I met Walter and Neil for the first time, before we headed out to a bar called Boxers. When we arrived I discovered that Boxers was a sports bar – that’s right, a gay sports bar. I don’t know if I was shocked, surprised, or just confused, but the concept of a gay sports bar just seemed so contradictory to me. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not a huge sports fan of any kind, but I could never imagine a dedicated gay sports bar ever taking off in the Surry Hills area of Sydney. It was also possibly an American thing – come to think of it, ‘sports bars’ aren’t so much a thing in Australia at all, since people just go down to the local pub if they’re going to watch the football.

The juxtaposition of the hyper-masculine, all American jock themes with the obvious gay pride rainbows actually worked pretty well. All around the bar there were various sports games being shown on television screens, but less than half of the people in the bar were actually paying them any real attention. We got some drinks and stood around for a little while, but the bar wasn’t exactly going off. We had plans to go to a nightclub later – some place where Neil’s friend was working as a promoter, which meant we could get in for free – but it was still incredibly early, so at Neil’s suggestion, we swung past a corner store on the way back to his apartment and all pitched in for a case of beer. Neil’s apartment was new – so new that were were surrounded by half unpacked boxes, and were sitting on his bed because it was either that or the floor – but we made ourselves comfy and sat around drinking our beers and chatting and laughing. It was during this period of a couple of hours that Neil convinced us to join them at Six Flags the following day, a decision that would feel like a huge mistake when the alarm went off at 7am the following morning. It wasn’t like I had any other plans though, so we agreed to come along.

Eventually we left – heavily intoxicated by that stage – for XL, the club where Neil’s friend was working. We skipped the line and didn’t have to pay entry, and his friend even showered us with a handful of drink tickets. XL was located nearby in Hell’s Kitchen (it’s since closed and reopened under a new name) and was a huge club – when the smoke machines came on it was almost impossible to see the other side of the dance floor. I honestly can’t remember much else about my time spent there, thanks to the several shots that Neil ordered us immediately upon arrival and the fact that I probably drank way too much beer beforehand anyway. We attempted to drink more, mostly likely attempted to dance for a bit, and when I used the bathrooms I was intensely fascinated by another concept that was incredibly foreign to me as an Australian: bathroom attendants. These people stand around the sinks in the bathroom and offer you all kinds of things, from soap to hand towels to spritzes of cologne, in return for an appropriate tip. I find the whole thing rather awkward, because instead of requesting their service they just jump in and try to wait on your every whim or need, when honestly I would rather dry my own hands on my jeans. You feel like a bit of a jerk having to actively avoid them or ask them to leave you alone, since they’re just doing their job and trying to make as much as they can out of whatever tips they can gather, but I still find it all rather uncomfortable. Although being drunk probably helps.

I couldn’t tell you how long we stayed at XL, but knowing that we had to get up early for Out in the Park at Six Flags, I’m assuming we left at a relatively reasonable hour. My memory of the whole thing is patchy at best, and the next thing I know I woke up nursing a headache, spooning Mischa, and cursing that damned alarm clock.

***

My second night out on the gay scene was a little more memorable… well, that probably isn’t the right word since I definitely don’t remember all of it. But it was definitely a lot more eventful. I had met Scott a few years ago when he had been holidaying in Sydney. He was a big partier, and we’d gotten on pretty well, so we’d kept in touch. He had been my only gay contact who actually lived in New York, so one evening when Melissa had other plans after class, I got in touch with Scott and asked about the best places to go. It was a Wednesday night, so naturally he was going out himself, and we met for a quick sushi dinner after he had finished work before heading back to his apartment – also in Hell’s Kitchen – so he could get ready. He went to offer me a drink while I waited, although the only alcohol he had was this strange Czech liquor (which I had actually tasted with Ike in Ancona) or absinthe. I guess it was at that early point in the evening that I should have known the end of this night wasn’t going to be pretty. I opted for the absinthe on the rocks. I don’t know, #yolo or whatever.

We went to a nearby theatre where a new weekly event was starting – So You Think You Can Drag? It’s exactly what you think it is – a whole line up of drag queens performing on stage in front of an audience, with a panel of judges making comments and scores and eventually choosing a winner. Now, I’ve been all over the world and seen a fair few drag queens, most notably in Cambodia, Russia and Germany, but so far I had yet to see any drag shows that came close to the quality of the queens that I’ve seen back home in Sydney. New York changed all that. I guess you really need to have something special to stand out in a place like this, and these queens were trying their hardest. I’ve always appreciated my favourite drag queens back in Sydney, so I really enjoyed watching all the acts. Add to the fact that the first hour of the event had an open vodka bar, and I knew that if I lived in NYC I would most definitely become a regular here. Like Scott obviously was. The hostess of the evening, Paige Turner, is one of New York’s more successful drag queens, and is on a first name basis with Scott – a relationship which I am sure developed purely because he never missed one of her shows.

Scott and Paige Turner - apparently I was a bit of a hit that night myself.

Scott and Paige Turner – apparently I was a bit of a hit that night myself.

New York drag queens giving it all they've got.

New York drag queens giving it all they’ve got.

Scott introduced me to a bunch of people as we mingled before the drag performances. It was here that I would learn that aspects of nightlife in New York are very different to Sydney – different from most places in the world that I’ve been to, now that I think about it. It’s not so much about certain venues or bars as it is about different events run by certain nightlife companies, which are held over a variety of venues on a weekly basis. Of course, there are dedicated gay bars too, but it’s very much a matter of knowing where to go on what night, depending on what you’re looking for or what you want to do. I think you could probably live there for years and still never figure it out, so I’m not going to pretend I am an expert or anything – this is purely just my understanding and perceptions based on my experience. When I was waiting in line with Scott, I was introduced to a guy named Bobby – he worked for BoiParty.com, the company that was running So You Think You Can Drag? – who was going down the line and signing up anyone who wasn’t part of the mailing list. Maybe it was something else, since it seemed like I had to give my details to even get in, but I didn’t mind, since I had no idea about what was going on in New York and would appreciate some email notifications about upcoming parties. I got chatting to Bobby for a little bit too, and he told me to add him on Facebook. He would end up being my go-to guy when it came to all things nightlife-related in New York.

After the shows had ended – the winner of tonight was a musical theatre queen named Sutton Lee Seymour – I headed back to Scott’s with a bunch of other people for a… ‘between events’ party? Post/pre drinks party? I don’t know exactly what it was, but I discovered just now non G-rated Scott’s life is. More absinthe was involved. The next thing I know I am at a bar called the Ritz, a place Scott was always raving about, which was the official, or maybe unofficial, after party for the previous drag event. The venue was pretty small and intimate, but the drinks were cheap and it was packed with guys and queens from earlier in the night. We danced, we sang, we made it rain dollar bills during the impromptu performances. Tipping drag queens was another thing that slightly shocked me, but I was coming to realise that the service industry workers who primarily relied on tips didn’t just finish in restaurants and bars and hospitality. It was something I would get used to during my months in the states, but right now it all seemed kind of awkward. At least, it did for me – the workers on the other end had no hesitation in taking my money.

Snapshot from one of my future nights out in New York City.

Snapshot from one of my future nights out in New York City.

It doesn’t happen often, but that night I blacked out. When I woke up, I was lying on Scott’s bed, fully clothed except for my shoes, which I appeared to have kicked off and were sitting on the floor by the bed. There was another guy lying next to me, still asleep and also fully clothed. I had no idea who he was. Scott was sitting on the end of the bed, and seemed to be in the middle of a very serious conversation with what appeared to be a drag queen who had only gotten halfway out of her drag outfit from the pervious evening. When I stirred and tried to sit up, Scott broke away from the conversation and turned around.
“Okay, twinks, it’s 9am. I have to teach in four hours so I need my bed back.” I stared at him, comprehending but being beyond speech in my current state. “You can sleep on the couch.”
It was nine on the morning?! I should have just gone home but I wasn’t ready to face the day. Scott woke up the other guy on the bed, who I later learned was named Mat, and shooed us both out of his room, along with the drag queen. She left, but Mat and I collapsed on the couch. I had absolutely no recollection of ever meeting him, or why we we’d ended up on a bed together, even though we were fully clothed. We spooned on the couch so we would both fit, and I managed to get a couple of more hours sleep. However, I didn’t let myself get too comfortable, because I had somewhere to be.

Melissa had some family coming to stay with her that weekend, which meant I had to make myself scarce for a little while. So I had planned a trip out of the city to Washington, DC. Well, I had a cheap bus ticket and a Couchsurfing host lined up at the other end, which is about as much planning as I ever do. The bus was leaving in the early afternoon, but I had, in all my infinite wisdom, still decided to have an absolute bender of an evening the night before. Eventually I dragged myself out of Scott’s apartment and into the to bright sunshine that was Hell’s Kitchen by day, and ran back across town – with a quick pit stop at McDonalds – to pack my bag and head of the bus station. Melissa wasn’t around, but by this point of my stay I finally had my own key, which she had said I could hang onto until I was leaving New York for the final time. I thought I’d left myself enough time to get the bus stop via the subway, but by the time I got home, showered, threw all my stuff into my bad and got back to the station, I realised that I really hadn’t. I hailed a cab. We got halfway across town – the bus was leaving from a corner near Penn Station – when it started to rain. Traffic came to standstill. I ended up throwing some cash at the driver and running through the torrential downpour that seemingly came out of no where. Gasping and panting, I made it to the bus just in time to have my baggage stowed away underneath. Climbing aboard the bus, I made a promise to myself I would never be hungover on a day of travel again – it wasn’t the first time I’d said that, and of course, it wouldn’t be the last.